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Considering the age of Trump, the Big Lie and its threat to more-qualified incumbents

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Rep. Dusty Johnson addresses a congressional committee

I'm inclined to write off Taffy Howard as a 25-percent-of-the-vote candidate in a primary against Dusty Johnson.

If it’s just the two of them, of course.

But what if Howard, a Republican legislator from Rapid City who has gone all in on Trump and the Big Lie about the 2020 election, gets a personal Trump endorsement and slurry train fully of money from Trumpsters out of state?

That’s what a Democratic friend with experience on campaigns said: “It all depends on how much money she can get.”

So she gets a million bucks. Then what?

Well, I have to believe Johnson would still win. I have to believe enough reasonable Republicans would show up in the primary to see to it.

Even in a party primary, he’d likely get an endorsement from his old boss, former Gov. Dennis Daugaard. He could well get an endorsement from another old boss, former Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds.

Sen. John Thune? Well, probably him, too. 

And Gov. Kristi Noem? Well, Howard doesn’t like Noem and I assume Noem returns the feelings. And as near as I can tell, Noem and Dusty get along just fine.

And Noem gets along great with Trump. 

How much would all that matter for Johnson, a Pierre-Fort Pierre native and Mitchell resident who has extensive government experience and traditional South Dakota conservative values?

A lot, I think.

In addition, while he and I disagree on many policy issues — I’m somewhere left of center — he’s a rational, reasonable human being, who tends toward the truth. And those are not-so-much-valued qualities to many Trump-loving Republicans these days.

Howard will try to portray Johnson as a RINO and a sellout because he did things like vote to certify Joe Biden’s election and not to throw Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney out of her GOP leadership role.

I imagine his past vote against Trump on his questionable move to shift money around — something true budget conservatives shouldn’t be for anyway — for border wall expenses will come up, too.

Johnson voted with Trump most of the time, of course, because most of what Trump did in policy matched Johnson’s conservative philosophy.

It matched South Dakota’s conservative philosophy.

But Johnson knows Joe Biden won the election. He knows and has said — along with most fact-based, rational, honest human beings — that there was no widespread voter fraud capable of changing the outcome of votes in any of the states.

Johnson also knows that if you don’t toe the Trump line all the time on everything, and most of all if you don’t promote the Big Lie, you could be in jeopardy in a GOP primary. That’s where rabid Trumpsters have an especially exaggerated impact.

Gosh, I hate that impact.

I called Johnson the other day just to chat. Most of it was private. The on-the-record stuff was predictable: he believes he has a strong record of conservative votes and initiatives consistent with what the majority of South Dakotans expect and want from a member of Congress.

He’ll talk specifics on that stuff in a campaign. He’ll listen to voters. He’ll hustle from stop to stop. We’ll likely see plenty of his delightful family again.

And he’ll have money enough to get his message out and do the campaigning he needs to do.

Nobody works harder or shows more energy and enthusiasm in a campaign. Will it be enough? I assume so.

But when I got off the phone with Johnson, I turned to my wife and said, “OK, if Taffy Howard beats Dusty Johnson running on the Big Lie, promise me we’ll move to another state.”

She didn’t promise. She figured I wasn’t serious.  And I probably wasn’t. Besides, she’s not inclined to leave her pack of grandkids in Rapid City anytime soon.

But Mary likes Dusty, even though, as a strong Democrat, she disagrees with him on just about all key policy issues. But she thinks he’s a good man. An honest man. A man who believes in facts, not political fiction.

He also believes in the established rule of law, in respectful political rhetoric and in a system of government that, while imperfect, has proven itself to be a worldwide standard of stability and success over more than 200 years.

Could a guy like that really lose to a candidate simply because he refuses to promote the Big Lie and simply did his job in certifying an election that all reasonable people know Joe Biden won?

I hope things haven’t slipped that far toward insane chaos.

I want to believe the most qualified candidate — in this case by far the most qualified — still wins, with the proper campaign and the money to fund it.

In truth, a primary like this shouldn’t even be close.

But in the age of Trump, 25-percent candidates can have a ridiculously inflated potential. Some of Johnson’s Republican colleagues in the U.S. House learned that in the last cycle, when they lost races they presumed they would win.

Johnson paid attention to that. And he won’t be taking anything or anyone for granted.

Including a campaign challenger who, in a pre-Trump world, wouldn’t pose much of a threat at all.